The Great Eight (Round of 16): Sacramento Republic lead Underdog Dream-Trio to Enigmatic Eight

The latest in our Great Eight Series, where we take an open-hearted Round-by-Round look at some of the quirkier happenings and thematics of America’s favorite soccer tournament.
By: Jonah Fontela
A player in a yellow goalkeeper kit embraces a player with a red kit and last name Herrera after an Open Cup match
A player in a yellow goalkeeper kit embraces a player with a red kit and last name Herrera after an Open Cup match

Fans of the historic Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup live by its magic moments. And the Round of 16 of the 2024 competition tossed up a good few of those on May 21 and 22. Join for a look back at eight moments of note from eight games in which 26 goals were scored (more than three per game) and the USL Championship (Div.II) trio of Sacramento Republic, Indy Eleven and New Mexico United joined a quintet of MLS clubs (four former Champs among them) in this year’s Quarterfinals.

A Republic of Dreams

Imagine an opera. Set in unfashionable Sacramento, out by the fairgrounds, in our own Open Cup. A free and open first half, played in splashes of Northern California sun, was good and gone. Forgotten were Kieran Phillips’ two goals and the home team’s hero ‘RoRo’ Lopez, the captain, their beating heart, limped off with injury. The darkness of night and uncertain outcomes settled over Heart Health Park. San Jose Earthquakes’ young wizard, Hernan Lopez, was on as a sub and casting spells. Down by one, out of gas, it looked like the fight had gone out of the hometown heroes – Open Cup Runners-up of 2022. But something happened. Something we have no answers for. The old Magic came back. The energy was furious. The response, violent. The outcome, miraculous. Two goals in 88 seconds – first from 2022 hero Luis Felipe and then Juan Sebastián Herrera. “This Cup allows you to create special nights,” said coach Mark Briggs, who found something in his men during the short break between OT sessions. He coaxed Cup Magic, which isn’t metaphor but real – as real as the scenes in California’s capital on Tuesday night.

Trio of Hope among Enigmatic Eight

Sacramento aren’t alone as Division II strivers in our Final Eight. New Mexico United flew under all the radars. Ask Real Salt Lake, who NMU left in their wake in the Round of 32. The Albuquerqueans don’t have a single surviving member from their side that reached the Open Cup Quarterfinal in their inaugural year of 2019. But here they are again, the same yellow and black, with that same sting. Indy Eleven are farther this year by far than ever before in our Open Cup – a decisive 3-0 win over former Cinderellas Detroit City stands as a stern message to all who’d write them off. Eight left. Elite Eight. It’s a funny word, that: Elite. We like to use it in American sports and it’s popular in our politics too. But it just doesn’t play, somehow, in the Open Cup. It speaks to gated-off wonderlands. The wrong kind of dreams. Ours is a world of all-in, earn your day. Open. Other words stand out too. Grit and fight. Heart. Merit, even. Luck, sure. The Open Cup’s magic potion is a mystery brew and that’s why we’ve got three Division II teams in our Last Eight. Our Enigmatic Eight.

Maarten Paes Superstaar & the Reverse Cupset

The gags wrote themselves on social media. Like Thou Shall Not Paes. FC Dallas, MLS Texans with former Real Madrid man Asier Illarramendi and USMNT star Jesus Ferreira in the Starting XI, were in the soup early at Al Lang Stadium. The hometown Tampa Bay Rowdies gave visiting goalkeeper Maarten Paes all he could handle for 90 minutes. The Rowdies took 30 shots and, by our count, the Dutch-born (though newly-minted Indonesian national team goalkeeper) made ten saves. Many of them were world-class. FC Dallas went on to score twice from five shots to win out 2-1. That’s the way the Cup cookie crumbled in a game that played out as a Cupset-in-Reverse. The Rowdies banged on the door, always on the attack, and the MLS team’s last line of defense kept them alive. Barely. “Sometimes you have those days where you feel invincible and nothing goes past you,” said Paes – so obviously the man of the match despite having his perfect night spoiled from the penalty spot in the 85th minute. “I was a little mad because it took away my clean sheet and I wanted to reward myself with that.”

Old Man Dax & Atlanta’s Youth

Dax McCarty doesn’t move like he used to. Hell, he’s 37. And with 39-year-old Kei Kamara of LAFC out injured, the ginger-haired midfielder was the oldest player active in our Round of 16. For 76 minutes of Atlanta United’s game against an outstanding Battery on the road in Charleston, McCarty’s red head was everywhere the ball was. He shadowed his teammates – some of them younger than him by half. He was always available for the ball. And he often got hold of it, dictating the patterns in a game that ended 0-0 with Atlanta edging it via shootout. McCarty is the old metronome in a team of young, fresh faces. He’s in control. And he’s been here before. This was his 22nd game in the Open Cup – and that’s more than the rest of his teammates on the day combined. And as Atlanta United inch ever-closer to what would be their second Open Cup Final, McCarty can gather those boys around and tell them stories. Like about his own run to the Decider back in 2017, with an outstanding New York Red Bulls side that lost on the road at the last hurdle in Kansas City, Kansas.

Vermes & SKC (always) See the Cup Light

That lands us in Kansas, Dorothy. Sporting Kansas City, led by Peter Vermes – the longest-serving coach in Major League Soccer (on the job since 2009) – are doing what they’ve often done in our tournament. “The Open Cup is the shortest road to a trophy in this country – and we always respect it,” is the refrain the coach sings at the start of every campaign. So it’s no surprise he’s won three of the club’s four Open Cup titles. Vermes needed his designated player Alan Pulido to clean up a potential mess on the road in Nebraska against Union Omaha in the last round, but this time out, at home at Children’s Mercy Park, the Blue Hell was afire. A 4-0 win over upstarts FC Tulsa (despite an epic performance from goalkeeper Michael Creek, who kept the score away from double digits) had Sporting KC looking like potential Cup heroes – despite spotty showings in the MLS regular season. The Stadium had that same kind of energy it did in 2017, the last time a man in SKC baby blue painted its wall as an Open Cup Champion.

Seattle’s Starfiring Sounders

The Emerald City’s Sounders are in a tight race with Sporting KC to become MLS’ first-ever five-time Champion of the Open Cup. And their old home of Starfire, up in the yeti-dense forests of Tukwila, has been the stage for the side’s early heroics. A sense of history suffuses the scene at Starfire every time. It’s a different energy from cavernous Lumen Field, where the Sounders play their league games. Starfire was the side's home back when they were a part of the Division II USL, before joining the big time of MLS and winning four Open Cup titles between 2009 and 2014. “You can really feel the fans there,” said goalkeeper Andrew Thomas, who became part of Seattle Cup lore by scoring the winning penalty in a shootout in this year’s Round of 32. “And the Open Cup is a big part of the Sounders’ tradition.” He did his all again this time out to see off lively Div. II club Phoenix Rising (2-1). He’s now a firm part of the long Sounders/Starfire Open Cup Story that stretches back to the notorious Red Card Wedding and that time goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann chugged a beer with the fans.

FC Dallas player takes a shot surrounded by Tampa Bay Rowdies players
FC Dallas player takes a shot surrounded by Tampa Bay Rowdies players
Logan Farrington is on a tear for FC Dallas in the Open Cup

The Numbers

We know there’s an interest in stats out there, so we’ve got some for you to chew on until we get to the business of our Quarterfinals in July. Let’s start with goals, as one always should. 17 – that’s the number that fell on Day One (nearly 3.5 per game) of our Round of 16. That, dear friends, is a number worth noting. It allows us to forgive Atlanta United and Charleston for their goalless draw that kicked off that otherwise prolific day (the only 0-0 result of the round). Day Two was dominated by the number 3. Each of that day’s three games produced three goals. That’s just kind of, well, weird. Atlanta United, it should be noted, have yet to concede in their two games and FC Dallas’ young Logan Farrington has now scored a goal in every Open Cup game he’s played. Lastly, a sad one: San Jose’s Earthquakes, as Josh Hakala at pointed out, haven’t won in their last ten Cup matches on the road.

A Fond Farewell

While our Enigmatic Eight carry on in July, it’s the end of the road for others we’ve come to care for. We thank them for their efforts and the Cup Magic they conjured, because here at the Open Cup it’s not all about the winners. Charleston Battery, with Ozzie Alonso and other stars of their 2008 run to our Final in the house to cheer them on, came up just one penalty short despite pushing 2019 Champs Atlanta United all the way. You’ll be missed, SC friends. And so will you, Phoenix Rising. You had Seattle shaking in your first-ever trip to the Round of 16. You too, Loudoun United – a place in the Last 16 in only your second Open Cup is something to hang your hats on. And we salute you as well, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Detroit City, for all you offered this year.

So, that’s where we leave it. Let’s take a long, deep, cleansing breath after these chaotic (and damn fun) first five rounds. We’ll gather ourselves and go again – for a Quarterfinal Round between July 9th and 10th when, as always in our Cup, anything can happen.

See you soon, friends.

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.